The way people most often deal with emotions is by transforming them into obstacles. They become something to overcome and something meaning has to be given to.
But meaning can only come out of experience. However, experience is also the locus of the story people tell themselves. It’s a story people associate with how they see the world, others, and themselves. Using that story to analyze an emotion usually results in meaning creation through rumination. It’s an intense and unfriendly path, one that leads people to the same place they most often end up in. One that reduces ambiguity, which is why stories often involve the idea “I knew it”.
It was an obstacle.
In her program Three Steps to Courage, Pema Chödrön suggests using emotions as a stepping stone.
When we are born, emotions are utterly confusing. Parents teach us, that emotions will not harm us, and help us learn to recognize them. But it takes time to learn to grasp them. Growing up, emotions continue to appear and surprise us. Some still feel harmful and we try to run away from them or to go against them. It’s largely the same move, one that invites a fight. Pema Chödrön suggests, as many Buddhist teachers do, to sit with the emotion and simply be present to it.
Doing so, it helps to give ourselves a sense of having space as a way to see that we can contain the emotion. Our ability to approach the emotion with warmth makes it easier to see the emotion as a stepping stone. But none of both are required, they simply make it easier to connect with the qualities of the emotion.
What Pema Chödrön explains, is that by learning to see beyond the emotion itself and discover its qualities we give ourselves a chance to learn to know the emotion itself, to distinguish it from others, and to discover how it is different from the last time. Once we can feel the emotion instead of making it into an obstacle we discover something that we share with every human. It creates a space allowing us to feel the sameness with others.
Sitting with the emotion is transforming it into a stepping stone. One that eventually helps us to find access to the wisdom that is embedded in emotions. It does take time.
The better we know what sadness, anger, joy, self-hatred, loneliness, anxiety, fear, pleasure, etc. feel like the easier it becomes to empathize and feel with others when they experience these emotions.
Knowing how it feels gives us a sense of how it feels for them.
It’s transforming an idea we make ourselves of, for example, loneliness into a feeling of loneliness. The idea of loneliness is connected to the story we tell ourselves. That’s what makes the idea threatening. The feeling of loneliness, on the other hand, is what we experience in the here and now.
As we learn to know the feeling we also learn to become patient with it. It’s letting go of the fear we connected with that feeling.